Hearings on Baffinland expansion in Nunavut close with criticism from Pond Inlet

People living in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, voiced their concerns on the final day of hearings on the proposed Mary River expansion. Now, the review board will draft a recommendation that'll inform a final decision by Canada's minister of northern affairs.

'We don't want to sacrifice our culture and tradition for jobs and benefits'

Caleb Sangoya of Pond Inlet speaks during the final session of the Nunavut Impact Review Board hearings in Iqaluit. His message: if the Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. wants to expand its Mary River iron mine, it needs to listen more to Inuit. (Jane George/CBC)

After three years, four hearings, two cancellations and other restrictions imposed by COVID-19, the fate of Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation's proposed Mary River expansion project is now in hands of the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB).

The most affected Nunavut community does not embrace the mining company's plans for growth. 

"We don't want to sacrifice our culture and tradition for jobs and benefits," said Enookie Inuarak, of Pond Inlet's hunters and trappers organization, on the final day of the NIRB hearing in Iqaluit. 

Inuarak said it sounded like the company was "trying to buy us," with repeated statements about jobs and money, and threats about putting the mine into care and maintenance if the expansion didn't proceed.

Six days of hearings wrapped up on Saturday afternoon. The NIRB will now start to form a recommendation on the expansion project for Daniel Vandal, the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs, who will have the final say on whether it can go ahead.

Baffinland wants to grow its production, increase shipping, and build a railway to bring ore to the Milne Inlet port. 

The hearings in Iqaluit exposed the clash between Inuit culture and development associated with the mine's expansion.

Pond Inlet's lack of support for the project already blew up in February with a blockade at the mine site's airport. But at the hearings, more representatives from the community of about 1,800 shared their concerns.

A speaker from Pond Inlet addresses the Nunavut Impact Review Board roundtable session at Iqaluit's Aqsarniit Hotel and Conference Centre on Friday thanks to a remote video connection with the north Baffin community. (Jane George/CBC)

Caleb Sangoya's parting message was that Baffinland should start thinking like Robert Peary, who reached the North Pole in 1909 with Inuit help, instead of John Franklin, whose entire 1845 expedition perished on its own in what is now western Nunavut.

Clyde River's mayor, Alan Kalluk Kormack, said Baffinland doesn't seem to care if Inuit lose their culture and traditions.

The benefits from the mine — hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in royalties and contracts — came up less during the discussion than concern about the mine's impact on narwhals.

One speaker from Pond Inlet talked about a time when narwhals would swim by in vast numbers through Eclipse Sound. 

However, this past summer, sound-leery narwhals waited for the end of the shipping season season to come, and then it was too late for hunters to cache their harvest.

"How is [my son] going to get the skills of a hunter?" asked Sula Nutarak of Pond Inlet, referencing coming back from a hunt with her son empty-handed.

Other deplored the lack of respect for traditional knowledge, although Baffinland spoke often about various agreements, commitments and committees, which, in the Phase 2, would guarantee Inuit a much larger voice in operations.

Udlu Hanson and Megan Lord-Hoyle, vice-presidents with Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., sit at the table in Iqaluit's Aqsarniit Hotel and Conference Centre on Saturday, the sixth day of the final hearings into the proposed expansion of the Mary River iron mine. (Jane George/CBC)

Speaking to CBC News, Baffinland vice presidents Megan Lord-Hoyle and Udlu Hanson said the feedback from the hearing was "productive."

Hanson said the overall proposal for Phase 2 has improved, because the company has responded to Inuit concerns since the hearings got underway in 2019.

At the end of the meeting, the review board's chairperson, Kaviq Kaluraq, said the original timeline for final written statements from hearing participants would be extended by a few weeks. That means the board's 45-day decision-making process, which starts after they have closed statements, will stretch into the new year.

In the meantime, Lord-Hoyle said Baffinland was going to get back to running its operations.

"We are going to be sitting at the edge of our seats waiting for the NIRB recommendation," she said.

That recommendation may or may not be accepted by the minister of northern affairs.

In June 2016, the NIRB recommended that Ottawa reject Sabina Gold and Silver Corp.'s Back River gold mine proposal, citing environmental and social impacts. The minister sent the proposal back to the NIRB in 2017, giving the mine, which is now in development, another chance.